The debate over who is the greatest player in NBA history involves a very short list. For some people, that list is Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan. For others (me, for example), the top three goes LeBron James and MJ followed by some either fan bias or stat superlative (again, my guy’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but plenty of Lakers fans too young to remember the sky hook or the passing wizardry of Magic Johnson would put Kobe Bryant in at the 3 spot.)
Point is, it’s not a very interesting list. LeBron or MJ, MJ or LeBron, like Catholics and Protestants in Reformation-era Europe or Democrats and Republicans in America today, people face off across a divide with no hope of common ground.
Nah, it’s more fun to just go through every NBA franchise currently extant plus one that was cruelly stolen and whose city serves as naught but a pawn to threaten taxpayers in other cities the way Los Angeles did for the NFL for too many years.
Shut up, Thunder fans, you have 11 years of history now. Seattle gets a writeup.
Anyway, I’m going to take all 30 teams plus Seattle, then name a greatest player. But, of course, there are rules:
Rule 1. A player must be strongly associated with that franchise in an iconic fashion in order to qualify.
That means LeBron can belong to Cleveland but not to Miami (only four years on Dwyane Wade‘s team) or Los Angeles (for what better be obvious reasons.)
Likewise, MJ was not the greatest Wizard/Bullet. He was old and slow and only played a couple of seasons. But he is absolutely a Chicago Bull.
Some guys can qualify more than once under these rules, if their careers made major impacts on more than one franchise (Kevin Garnett in Minnesota and Boston, Oscar Robertson for the Kings and Bucks), they will be considered, although not as strongly as if they’d spent their entire career on a team that isn’t the first one you think of when you think of them (KG is not Larry Bird; Big O is not Kareem, and Kareem is not Magic or Kobe.)
You’ll see what I mean as this develops.
Rule 2. Franchise continuity is on a case-by-case basis.
A team that has a traceable history that goes way back and is rooted in the mists of the distant past or the ABA (see Nets, Pacers, Nuggets, and Spurs) counts. Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers. Philadelphia/San Francisco/Golden State Warriors. Rochester/Cincinnati Royals/Kansas City/Sacramento Kings.
But not Oklahoma City Thunder/Seattle Supersonics or New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans as distinct from Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats/Hornets Again.
Rule 3. Rings Beat Stats.
For some sad-sack franchises, this is more “getting them to the playoffs at all beats stats” (hi there, Timberwolves and Raptors) but fans remember champions. And on an individual city basis, there’s a good reason even young people in Boston understand who Bill Russell was and who Larry Bird was, and why plenty of Windy City natives who weren’t even born in 1998 (dear gods, we’re two months away from people old enough to drink who weren’t even born when MJ hit The Last Shot)…OK, I’m digressing and feeling old all at once.
I’m relying heavily on Win Shares because Basketball Reference ranks players in their Franchise Index that way and gives me 12 guys to choose from, and on my posting schedule, that’s good enough for research purposes for a light-tone opinion piece.
Rule 4. Recency Bias Both Is And Isn’t A Thing.
If a guy is in “ask your grandpa” territory, or if his years with the franchise were in another city from the one the team is in now (we’ll encounter this with the Hawks in the very first entry), he loses points in the rankings.
Even people who have gone to every Sacramento Kings home game still, at best, grew up seeing Oscar Robertson on television. Likewise, Bob Pettit is a Hawks legend…in St. Louis. You get the idea.
Rule 5. If You Don’t Like It, @ Me.
This is one man’s list. I’m a born-in-1977 Pacers fan who grew up in Boston and, in the ’90s, rooted for the Sonics to come out of the West because sports are more interesting when you pick sides. My conversion from Celtics fan to Pacers fan is a story for another day (one reasonably well-known on Pacers Twitter.)
But if you don’t like it, make your own damn list.
Now then, on with the show. This is in alphabetical order so I don’t forget any teams exist.
Atlanta (via Tri-Cities, Milwaukee, and St. Louis) Hawks: Dominique Wilkins
The Human Highlight Film is still synonymous with Atlanta basketball. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in games played (882), points (23,292), and legendary dunk contest appearances.
The more distant history of the franchise has Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan, and Pettit is actually the franchise all-time leader in Win Shares, but Rule 4 applies.
Boston Celtics: Bill Russell
Count the rings. The man is the gold standard for NBA championships. He is the biggest reason Boston still has a reputation as a racist sports town, as the people of suburban Reading, Massachusetts, ran Russell out of town rather than let a black man—even a sports legend—live among them.
Russell is on the Mount Rushmore of Boston sports next to Tom Brady, Bobby Orr, and Ted Williams.
Sure, some folks might call for Larry Bird here. If ESPN let him, Paul Pierce might try to call his own number and some kid too young to know better might go for it.
But Bill Russell occupies a hallowed place in the city’s history for better or worse. He is, in some ways, as Boston historically speaking as Paul freaking Revere.
Brooklyn (via New Jersey) Nets: Julius Erving
Remember how I said the ABA counted? Dr. J laid the groundwork playing on the closest thing the ABA had to a true marquee franchise. The Knicks actually forced the Nets into the New Jersey swamp and forced the Doctor to Philadelphia because they were that scared of losing their territorial supremacy to the upstarts from the other league.
The Nets had the biggest icon in the ABA. Part of the reason the red, white, and blue ball league hung around long enough to get merged was because of Dr. J.
Honorable mention to Kidd and Vinsanity and even Petrovic. But the Nets are back in New York City with an Afro-wearing star in the making (yeah, I’m looking at you, Jarrett Allen. No pressure to fill those shoes…)
Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats/Hornets Again: Larry Johnson
Yes, Kemba Walker leads the Not Cats in career Win Shares. But the Hornets have won bupkus in Walker’s career.
Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning were the anchors of a Charlotte team that was actually good and, unlike Walker’s teams, actually won a playoff series. And “Grandmama” was a greater national celebrity than Kemba’s ever been among casual fans.
The history of the Hornets is the history of a team that was just starting to come together when, thanks to mismanagement, they got shipped out of town and swapped for an expansion team. Not that the nomads won anything in New Orleans, of course.
Chicago Bulls: Michael Jordan
If I have to explain, welcome to Pace and Space, this is a site about basketball and Michael Jordan was a famous basketball player.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James
If I have to explain, welcome to Pace and Space, this is a site about basketball and LeBron James is a famous basketball player.
Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki
The Mavs are not without an illustrious past. They had a black man named Rolando Blackman, one of the best names in NBA history and the guy who actually held the franchise record for Win Shares before Dirk showed up.
But Nowitzki, besides having 206.3 WS to Blackman’s 70.8, has one ring, should’ve had another but for so much rigging that the referees must’ve thought they were captaining a sailboat, and oh by the way just about every career record in existence for a foreign-born NBA player.
Denver Nuggets: Dan Issel
Yeah! Another ABA guy!
It’s really down to Issel, Alex English, and Carmelo Anthony. I’m going with Issel because his legacy is completely tied to the team he starred for his entire career and later came back to coach to the greatest playoff upset in NBA history to that point in 1994.
English made eight All-Star teams for Denver’s wild and wacky offense under Doug Moe, but Issel is the career leader in Win Shares and that’s tipping the balance.
English and Fat Lever got as far as the Western Conference Finals in 1984-85…and maybe if they’d somehow managed to beat Magic Johnson, they’d be icons.
It’ll be fun to see whether Nikola Jokic hangs around to build a legacy in the Mile High City.
Detroit Pistons: Isiah Thomas
Fun fact: Bill Laimbeer actually led the Bad Boys Pistons in Win Shares during their two title seasons.
But Isiah was the face of the franchise, a guy who would’ve been on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” except Larry Bird hated him and so did Michael Jordan…and probably half of the rest of the league too.
Thomas’ name is spoken in terms usually reserved for one’s ex-wife outside of Detroit. But in the Motor City, he’s the ultimate legend.
Golden State (via Philadelphia) Warriors: Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt is still the all-time leader in Win Shares in a Warriors uniform. He scored his legendary 100-point game in Hershey, Pennsylvania, while the franchise was still based in Philly. He’s one of the greatest players who ever lived, and MJ nearly gifted him back the career points per game record thanks to those Wizards years (Jordan and Chamberlain both finished at 30.1 points per game, but round to more decimal places and Jordan comes out ahead.)
When a team’s been around since the very beginning (the Warriors won the first-ever Basketball Association of America championship in 1947), there have been plenty of stars to cross the franchise’s path. Rick Barry. Stephen Curry. Paul Arizin and Nate Thurmond and Chris Mullin.
But the Big Dipper stands above them all. At least until Steph signs a max extension, breaks the career three-pointer record, passes Wilt in Win Shares, and wins another five rings. But not yet. Not quite yet.
Never receiving votes: Kevin Durant. Blatant mercenaries don’t count, not even in today’s NBA.
Houston (via San Diego) Rockets: Hakeem Olajuwon
Houston has two NBA championships won during the Jordan interregnum when MJ was playing baseball and helping Bugs Bunny avoid being enslaved by the Monstars.
They got within a Larry Bird of winning another one in 1986 when Olajuwon was in his third year in the league.
James Harden was on a team that missed 27 three-pointers in a row in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
Wild guess, but the Dream’s not giving up this title in my lifetime. And I don’t plan on dying young.
Harden is, notably, already second in franchise history in Win Shares (100.8 to Hakeem’s 160.6) so there’s that.
Indiana Pacers: Reggie Miller
As much as I want to give this to the likes of Roger Brown or George McGinnis or Mel Daniels for those three ABA titles the Pacers won, no player is more iconic to the Pacers during the lifetime of people who actually watched them than Reggie.
Miller racked up more Win Shares in a Pacers uniform than Hakeem did for the Rockets. He led the team to a Finals appearance in 2000. If he didn’t exist in the same universe as Jordan and Patrick Ewing in the 1990s (and the team-of-destiny Pistons in 2004), the Pacers might’ve gotten past one of the five other Eastern Conference Finals that Miller was on the losing side of during his career.
Oh, and speaking of Miller’s misfortune, if he hadn’t been coached by the incompetent Isiah Thomas for three years, the Pacers might’ve gotten Miller out of the first round of the playoffs in 2001, ’02, or ’03.
Los Angeles (via Buffalo and San Diego) Clippers: Chris Paul
CP3 led the Lob City Clippers in Win Shares, and really, it’s him or Blake Griffin for this award.
Not because the Clippers were some special super team; they never got past the second round of the playoffs.
But they made the playoffs six times in a row, and that’s two more playoff appearances than the franchise had total in all the years after they left Buffalo.
Who else is supposed to occupy this slot? Maybe Bob McAdoo, but he only played four-plus seasons in Buffalo.
Despite that, he’s fifth in franchise history in Win Shares.
Los Angeles (via Minneapolis) Lakers: Magic Johnson
I was a kid in the 80s.
Is there a real good argument for Kobe Bryant? Sure! Kobe played 20 years in LA, won the same number of rings (5) as Magic did, and broke Jerry West‘s franchise record for career Win Shares (speaking of iconic Lakers, even if West’s greatest talent as a player was losing to the Celtics.)
Kobe wins out over Shaquille O’Neal because Shaq was too much of a nomad.
The top four guys in franchise history for Win Shares in LA are Kobe, West, Kareem, and Magic. George Mikan is fifth.
Shift Mikan to power forward, move Kobe to small forward, and play West and Magic in the backcourt and that all-time starting five beats…dear gods, I hate to say it as a guy who grew up a Celtics fan, but even Boston can’t field a starting 5 that good.
But I was a kid in the 80s. I vote for Magic. If he didn’t get HIV, who knows what more he could have done after 1991?
If you vote for Kobe, I absolutely will not tell you you’re wrong. Nor will I if you say Jerry West or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or, if you’re 100 years old and from Minnesota, George Mikan.
But I vote for Magic.
Memphis (via Vancouver) Grizzlies: Mike Conley
It’s Conley or Marc Gasol, and with Gasol having been shipped off to Toronto and Conley left behind, he was just last man standing. He’s six Win Shares short of Gasol on the career list, but (a) Win Shares tend to favor centers because of how the stat is designed, and (b) Conley’s still in Memphis.
The franchise was such a garbage fire in Vancouver, and they haven’t been all that much better in Tennessee, but they got a couple of for-real all-time players…even if one of them, the best guy in the history of the franchise, has never even been an All-Star.
Let’s…not talk about Memphis. They make the Clippers look like the Lakers.
Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade
That’s right. Not LeBron. Four years do not a franchise legacy make.
Not Shaq. One mostly-injured year to get a title before wandering around the desert for 40 days and 40 nights in his NBA twilight? Shaq belongs ultimately to…well, the Lakers, and he ran into stiff competition there.
It’s D-Wade, arguably the third-greatest shooting guard of all time behind MJ and Kobe. I have West in the 3 spot, but you can make a very plausible argument for putting Wade there. Not for nothing has his farewell tour been such a lovefest around the NBA.
Milwaukee Bucks: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
One, count the ring. Two, Kareem’s the franchise leader in Win Shares. Three, as good as Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson were, you gotta make a Finals if you’re on a team that’s won a title unless there’s a good reason why you’ve got a better case than the best player on the title team.
The Bucks have otherwise been enough of a disaster that Michael Redd is their fifth-leading player of all time in Win Shares, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is already seventh even though he’s only been in the league six years and only been a true superstar for two.
But Milwaukee was on top of the mountain once, and the man formerly known as Lew Alcindor led the way.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin Garnett
This is KAT’s fourth year in the NBA.
The Wolves are right down there with Memphis on the list of the worst franchises in NBA history.
Wally Szczerbiak is fourth in Win Shares.
For every year he played in Minnesota except his rookie year (Tom Gugliotta) and his farewell tour, KG was the undisputed best player on the Wolves and one of the best in the league.
There is no debate.
New Orleans (via Oklahoma City, sort of) Hornets/Pelicans: Chris Paul
Holy crap, CP3 pulls off the impossible and stands as franchise icon for two different franchises!
This is mostly because Anthony Davis whined and complained before bothering to break CP3’s franchise mark for Win Shares and also because the Not Pelicans Yet went to three playoffs during CP3’s tenure and only two with the Brow on the team.
Chris Paul won a playoff series with Byron Scott as his coach. They should put him in the Hall of Fame for that.
You can argue for Davis. I’m arguing for CP3, and so are the stats.
This franchise should probably just move to Seattle because it’s another all-time dumpster fire.
New York Knicks: Walt Frazier
Rings. Clyde won two. Patrick Ewing won zero.
Frazier even made another Finals in 1972 where he ran into one of the greatest teams ever to take the floor, the ’72 Lakers that finally won Jerry West a ring.
Plus, Frazier was the coolest, most stylish cat in the NBA at a time when the older league was seen as stodgy compared to the flashy ABA (and Dr. J.)
So I’m putting Clyde over Ewing.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook
Why? Because Westbrook stayed, that’s why. Kevin Durant was and is a better player, but Westbrook stayed.
And I don’t care what execrable fiction the NBA tries to cram down our throats, Gary Payton is not the all-time franchise leader for the Thunder in Win Shares. Just shut right the hell up.
Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for three straight years when only one other player did it in the history of the league, and Oscar Robertson only did it once way back in the 1960s when everything was made up and the stats don’t matter.
Paul George might steal this honor someday, but congratulations, Russ, you won.
Orlando Magic: Dwight Howard
It is so easy to forget how good Dwight Howard was because he completely honked his legacy starting in 2012.
But if he’d simply boarded a plane and crashed into the ocean, we might’ve been talking about how “a guy who could’ve been one of the greatest centers of all time tragically passed too soon” and not about how “Dwight sucks, he’s gotten himself run out of town how many times? What a waste of talent, is he even a Hall of Famer?”
Yes, you idiot, Dwight Howard is absolutely a Hall of Famer. And the bulk of his case rests on some truly magical years in Orlando.
Shaq is actually third in career Win Shares for the Magic. Nick Anderson and his missed free throws held the record until Howard showed up.
Philadelphia (Via Syracuse) Nationals/76ers: Dolph Schayes
Wait, you may be saying. Dolph Schayes? On what grounds?
14 years in Syracuse and one in Philadelphia, that’s what grounds. He’s the only Nats/Sixers icon who actually stuck around long enough to build a legacy that was distinct to this franchise.
Everyone else went on to greater things elsewhere or had done greater things elsewhere and then showed up in Philly.
Dr. J? Did his best work in the ABA.
Charles Barkley? Gone to Phoenix and then Houston.
Wilt? Came from the Warriors.
Dr. J, Mo Cheeks, Moses Malone, they all have cases.
But Schayes is the guy who racked up the career Win Shares record, and unless Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons play for 15 years in Philly at a consistent All-Star level, the best Sixer of all time played all but one of his years in Syracuse, New York.
Phoenix Suns: Kevin Johnson
Yes, I know Shawn Marion‘s the franchise leader in Win Shares, but Johnson actually made a Finals.
Likewise, Steve Nash was a two-time MVP…but Johnson actually made a Finals.
And as good as Charles Barkley was (league MVP in ’93 on that Finals team), he shoved off to Houston while Johnson played his entire career (except part of his rookie year in Cleveland, where he came over as part of the trade that sent Larry Nance to the Cavs) in Phoenix.
Oh, and that trade of Nance for Johnson? One of the draft picks became Dan Majerle. Ted Stepien wasn’t even still in Cleveland by then!
Portland Trail Blazers: Clyde Drexler
Yeah, Drexler went to Houston, but he made a Finals in Portland first. He is also the franchise leader in Win Shares by a mile.
Honorable mention to Bill Walton, who won a title in 1977 for the city, but he wasn’t on the team long enough to leave a lasting legacy. He played for the Clippers and later the Celtics in a journeyman and injury-riddled career, but man, what a year.
Another honorable mention to Damian Lillard, who is already third in franchise history in Win Shares. If the Blazers ever win anything with Lillard, he’ll get mention in the future.
Sacramento (via Rochester, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Omaha) Royals/Kings: Oscar Robertson
How laughable is the Kings’ history in Sacramento? Only three of their top 12 players by Win Shares were from the Sacramento era, and that’s a top 12 where the 12th man is Scott Wedman.
But neither of those guys are anywhere near Robertson’s level.
Honorable mention to DeMarcus Cousins, who was on his way to the longest career without a playoff appearance in NBA history before he either broke that spell last year (if you count his injured self riding the pine in New Orleans) or will do so this year when he actually suits up in a playoff game for the Warriors.
Nice job breaking it, Vlade Divac.
San Antonio (via some early ABA weirdness) Spurs: Tim Duncan
The greatest power forward of all time. The leader of five championship teams spaced out so far that he won his first title in 1999 and his last in 2014.
LeBron James was 14 years old when Duncan won that first title. Of all the players in the NBA in 1999, only Vince Carter is still active. Even in 2014, of all the active players in 1999, almost none of them were still in the league. And if they were, they were old and broken. Duncan was still a major contributor on that Finals championship team.
Seattle SuperSonics: Gary Payton
The Glove ran off to chase rings first in LA in 2004 and then in Miami in 2006, but he is a Seattle icon to this day.
Gary Payton is Mr. Sonic. To this day he never has to pay for a beer in Seattle if he doesn’t want to.
And shut up about the Thunder.
Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry
Vince Carter never made an Eastern Conference Finals. Chris Bosh was never anything better than a Great Stats, Bad Team guy.
Lowry is the franchise leader in Win Shares, and his Raptors have been to the playoffs more times (6 in a row) than the team had previously made in the first 18 years of their existence (five.)
DeMar DeRozan is in San Antonio now. It’s Lowry’s team. And all four of Toronto’s 50-win seasons in the history of the team had Lowry at the point.
Utah (via New Orleans) Jazz: John Stockton and Karl Malone
They’re a two-headed monster. You can’t have one without the other. Malone had 230.3 Win Shares in a Jazz uniform; Stockton had 207.7.
Stockton and Malone, Malone and Stockton. Yeah, technically Karl was better, but c’mon. He is second in the history of the league in points because Stockton is first in the history of the league in assists.
They go together.
Washington (via Chicago and Baltimore) Packers/Zephyrs/Bullets/Wizards: Wes Unseld
The Wizards are a bit of a joke character in the gotta-catch-em-all world of NBA Pokemon.
But in the 70s, when the Celtics were wandering in the wilderness after Bill Russell and before Larry Bird (and somehow won two titles anyway in 1974 and ’76 because they’re the Celtics), the Bullets were the best team year in and year out.
They made the Finals in 1971 (lost to the Bucks), 1975 (lost to the Warriors), 1978 (beat Seattle), and 1979 (lost to Seattle.) They made the playoffs 12 straight times between 1969 and 1980.
And Unseld, the greatest outlet passer of his era, was the best of the lot on that squad.
You’d think a franchise with a 60-year history would have more than two guys with more than 60 Win Shares, but you’d be wrong. Greg Ballard is fourth in DC history with 48.6 WS. John Wall, at 44.3, is fifth.
But for one brief stretch in the ’70s, Les Boulez were legends.
Wow…I think this is not only the longest article in Pace and Space history, but at 4,416 words might be the longest thing I’ve ever written! Thanks for sticking with me and thanks for reading Pace and Space!